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The Non-White Manic Pixie Dream Girl

By Alyssa Rosenberg on July 25, 2011 at 6:38 pm

"The Non-White Manic Pixie Dream Girl"

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I liked this Racialicious piece on possible black models for Manic Pixie Dream Girls — there is something weird about the whiteness of that particular archetype, and the whiteness of the archetypal men who desire her. But I think it’s actually overly optimistic to assume that what makes a woman a Manic Pixie Dream Girl is actually her own qualities. I don’t know that a character is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl because she wears a certain kind of clothes, be they thrift-store duds and kinte cloth or tea dresses, that she’s good at idiosyncratic activities, like playing acoustic guitar or running turntables, or that she will hook you up with certain activities, be it backstage parties or playing house at Ikea. I’m not even sure that this is quite it: “If the notion is that Zooey Deschanel is an unreal amalgam of white male fantasies, female rappers like Nicki Minaj may offer that for Black males.” After all, the point isn’t really that Zooey Deschanel is a supermodel sex kitten — she’s an anime character, a pliable blank with eyes as big as movie screens, perfect for a certain kind of male character to project all sorts of ideas and emotions across. Why Manic Pixie Dream Girls like what they like, or self-present the way they present, or are the way they are, is never interesting to the movies or television shows that they’re in.

I’m all for the idea that we need more diverse images of black people, and of black couples, on our screens. The problem with Tyler Perry is not that he tells the same story over and over again — lots of stories told by white writers and directors, with white stars, are hugely derivative. But it matters a lot less if 90 percent of those movies with white casts and white writers and white directors and white producers are derivative when hundreds of those movies come out every year. It might be better if all of those movies were original and fascinating, but even if you get 20 fairly original, thought-provoking movies every year, that’s enough to keep most moviegoers fairly occupied, and a reasonable number of white actors in interesting work. But when Medicine for Melancholy, or Love Jones, is a once-every-couple-of-years event, you don’t get a chance to build and explore new archetypes across multiple works in the same way the Manic Pixie Dream Girl has come together in a relatively short amount of time. Instead, you’ve got the same manichean old struggles about class and righteousness. Which is to to say that how race is lived across class lines, or the role of the church, aren’t important to folks, but they’re not the only things that are important to all folks.

In any case, if we’re going to get more nerds of color, more quirky non-white people, on our screens, we should shoot for archetypes that actually focus on what it means to like different things than your peer group, or to conceive of beauty differently, or to mature before, or after, the people around you, rather than to turn those differences and uniquenesses as totems on someone else’s spirit quest. More Oscar Waos and fewer Zooey Deschanels.

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